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Tommy Thompson says more federal money will go to fight biological threats

  • Article by: Glenn Howatt
  • Star Tribune
  • October 13, 2001 - 11:00 PM

ROCHESTER, MINN. -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Saturday that the federal government has the resources to contain and stop bioterrorism, but that more federal money will soon be designated for defenses against biological and chemical threats.

He also said it's still to soon to declare that the four anthrax cases in Florida and New York were part of a coordinated terrorist attack.

"We do not have real evidence of chemical or biological terrorist activities," he said, adding that the media organizations could have been targeted by someone with a grudge.

Thompson was the featured speaker at the opening of the new $375 million Gonda Building at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

He said health authorities are testing many letters for traces of anthrax, and decried individuals who would use the situation to perpetrate hoaxes.

"The Postal Service and the FBI will prosecute fully to the law anyone who does this," he said. "This is nothing to joke about."

President Bush will soon announce a funding initiative that will help the country prepare for bioterrorism, Thompson said.

Last week, Minnesota bioterrorism expert Mike Osterholm told a congressional committee that $2 billion was needed to improve the public health system to respond to the threat. Thompson didn't say Saturday how much federal money will be invested.

But he added that $643 million was recently approved for the purchase of more drugs and vaccines that would be used in case of a large outbreak of anthrax or smallpox.

"We are in the process of purchasing drugs that can treat 12 million Americans for 60 days," Thompson said, referring to the antibiotic Cipro, which is used to treat anthrax.

He said Americans should not horde medications or buy gas masks, saying the federal government has already stockpiled medical supplies that can be mobilized in case of an emergency.

Federal agencies have more than 400 tons of medical supplies stored on eight cargo planes that can be deployed within 12 hours, he said. Also, more than 7,000 physicians nationwide have volunteered to assist in an emergency.

Included in the medical supplies are enough doses of Cipro to treat 2 million Americans for two months.

The new 20-story Gonda building will house many of Mayo's specialty clinics and will allow patients to receive a variety of outpatient treatments and surgery in one setting.

The building, which is linked to the core Mayo building, will be the world's largest integrated medical facility.

"Can you imagine that in Rochester, Minnesota?" asked Thompson, who at one point jokingly referred to Rochester as a "suburb of Wisconsin." He was governor of Wisconsin until his appointment to Bush's cabinet.

He said that in addition to fighting terrorism, Americans also should help fight diseases across the globe to help improve the lives of those in other countries.

"In so many regions of the world pain is real and hope seems distant," he said.

But Thompson conceded that the threat of terrorism has affected the health agenda, including proposals to add prescription drug coverage to the Medicare program.

Many seniors in Minnesota can no longer afford to buy the supplemental insurance that helps pay for medications. Thompson agreed that there is a need for some drug coverage in Medicare.

"There's an outside chance, but I am not looking for anything to happen on that soon," he said. "It is more logical that it will be next year. But I am an optimist."

-- Glenn Howatt is at howatt@startribune.com .

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